Five people including three members of Malaysia’s Christian minority have been reported missing in recent months, with civil society and rights groups describing the cases as “unprecedented mysterious disappearances” and calling for prompt action by authorities.
Police have confirmed that at least one of the five, Pastor Raymond Koh Keng Joo, was abducted in February and classified the others as “missing people.”
“The circumstances in which at least some of the individuals are reported to have been abducted calls for the government to increase efforts to establish their whereabouts and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice, including taking measures to prevent further disappearances,” Shamini Darshni, the executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, told BenarNews on Friday.
The influential Malaysian Bar Association said it was deeply troubled by the reported disappearances and called them unprecedented.
“It is shocking and outrageous that a growing number of Malaysians could inexplicably disappear and not be found for days, weeks and months. This has never happened before in this country, to the best of our knowledge, and has led to public perception and speculation of the occurrence of forced disappearances,” George Varughese, president of the lawyers’ group, said in a statement issued this week.
Two of the cases that date back to November 2016 are Christian clerics, and two others are activists known for their advocacy of social issues in Malaysia. The latest case was the suspected abduction of Koh on a road in a Kuala Lumpur suburb on Feb. 13. The incident occurred in broad daylight during as a CCTV camera filmed some cars, motorcycles and other vehicles surrounding his car, forcing him to stop and snatching him away.
Apart from demanding swift action by police in solving the cases, civil society groups also have been holding candlelight vigils.
This week, Malaysia’s police chief lashed out over the publicity and speculation around the case of the Koh. Police Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar asked for different parties not disseminate information that could confuse people.
“You are only putting the life of the pastor in danger. We have cases where kidnappers will hold on to the victim for months, and will only respond when they think it is safe to respond,” Khalid told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.
“I would like to urge everyone to allow us to do our work and not put his life in danger. I should say, please shut up!” Khalid said.
Police are investigating all five cases and are treating Koh as a kidnapping victim but the other four as missing persons, Khalid told reporters.
Commenting on the case of social activist Peter Chong, who was reported missing earlier this month, Khalid said police had obtained pictures of him entering Thailand at a border crossing in northern Malaysia.
“We have immigration records and photos of him leaving the country. There is no record showing that he has returned to the country,” Khalid said of Chong, according to the New Straits Times newspaper.
“I hope he will contact his family to inform them of his condition,” the police inspector-general said, adding the authorities would take action against Chong “if his motive was to create panic in the country.”
The first of the five who went missing is Amri Che Mat, a social activist, co-founder of a local NGO and resident of the state of Perlis, who disappeared on Nov. 24. His disappearance may have been religiously motivated because allegations had circulated that he was spreading Shia Muslim teachings, which are frowned upon in the Sunni Muslim-majority country, according to local reports.
Witnesses reported seeing five vehicles block the path of his jeep, which was found empty and with its windshield smashed near a local dam.
The next case took place on Nov. 30 when a Christian couple, Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Seputih, also a preacher, were last seen at their home in Selangor state. A missing persons’ report, however, was only filed on March 6, according to reports.
Although very little is known about the two, blog postings claim that Himly and his wife were both converts from Islam who had also converted other Muslims to Christianity.
Malaysia is home to about 19.5 million Muslims that make up more than 60 percent of its population. Buddhists, Hindus and Christians live side by side with Muslims, but religious matters are not discussed publicly and are highly sensitive issues.
Regarding the case of Koh, the local NGO that he heads, Harapan Komuniti (Hope Communty), was probed by Islamic authorities in 2011 for allegedly holding a party with Muslim attendees at a church, according to reports.
The missing pastor also was the target of allegations that he had tried to convert Muslim youths to Christianity. The accusation leveled against the group was proselytization, which is considered an offense in Malaysia, reports said.
A well-known mufti from the state of Amri, Professor Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, said people should not insinuate that religion was a factor in the cases of these missing people unless they had proof.
“Each religion, whether Islam or otherwise, shall comply with national laws to ensure the safety and welfare of the people. No religion can act alone in a country that has a legitimate government like Malaysia,” he told BenarNews, adding that his faith prohibits kidnapping.
“Islam prohibits acts of violence and hostility between religions without a valid reason,” he said.
Fairuz Mazlan and N. Natha contributed to this report.